Due to the fact that both D.C. United and the San Jose Earthquakes had road games on Wednesday, there's certainly an argument that fans should a sloppy, sluggish game of soccer tonight. After all, it's hard to play good soccer with only 3 days before kickoffs, and on top of that United was playing on turf in Panama while the Quakes were playing a notoriously fit, physical KC side.
In context, though, things are a bit different. United managed to beat Arabe Unido despite using their expected starters tonight for just 52 total minutes (all played by Steve Birnbaum). The Quakes, meanwhile, changed formations and got a potentially season-changing victory at Sporting Park. They'll have more rotating to do than United, most likely, but the final 30 minutes of their game were not very demanding and they'll surely be on the sort of emotional high that might make their legs feel a bit less heavy.
Despite being an out-of-conference match, this one carries plenty of importance for both clubs. United has seen their Supporters Shield lead dwindle down to a single point, while their lead in the East is now only 5 points (with NYRB sitting on 3 games in hand, too). San Jose, meanwhile, needs the points even more: They're 3 points out of the playoffs in the more difficult Western Conference.
Key player: Sean Franklin
I'm writing this as I watch the Quakes rip Sporting KC to shreds, and they did it with an almost comically simple plan: Win ball, pass to wing, fire in cross, get to the service first. It was also San Jose's first game in a new-look 442 that is about as old-school as you're going to see in MLS. That suited Shea Salinas very well, as he simply torched Chance Myers all game long.
Franklin gives away some speed to Salinas, so he's going to have to be very sharp mentally to prevent Salinas from having similar success. That means seeing the danger before it becomes obvious, and getting his angles right time and again. With Matias Perez Garcia not a good fit for the new system, and Tommy Thompson unlikely to start, the balls that find Salinas are going to be simple. This will be more of a quantity test than a quality test, in other words.
In the 442, San Jose's attack isn't very diverse. Their wide men are wingers; they stay wide and hit crosses, or they try to dribble past a fullback into the box. There's little-to-no attempt to come inside to combine at any sort of length. That means both fullbacks are going to have to do a lot of defending, and they're going to have to do it well. Chris Wondolowski has made a career out of turning merely adequate crosses into goals, and the best remedy is to make sure the crosses are either bad or never happen at all.
Key question: Is United going to be able to deal with a new-look San Jose Earthquakes?
San Jose will arrive in town on the back of a good result on Wednesday. And by "good result," I mean they ripped Sporting KC to shreds, interrupted their funeral by shouting lies and playing party music, and destroyed their headstone. We're talking 5-0 at Sporting Park, and it could have been worse.
With Matias Perez Garcia injured, Dominic Kinnear finally had an excuse to put the kind of team he's known for on the field: A very 90s-era English 442 featuring two very fast wingers, two defensive midfielders, a physical striker, and a high-level poacher. The results were so good that it'll be hard for Perez Garcia to get back into the team, though we might see some sort of rotation due to the short rest.
The Quakes looked perfectly comfortable in this new formation, and United is going to have to be very careful in possession. San Jose is going to sit deep and look for counters, and the Black-and-Red flat out do not have the speed on the wings to match Shea Salinas, Cordell Cato, or Sanna Nyassi. Today, United needs to take care of the ball and be patient; that's how they're likely to open up the San Jose defense, and it's also how they can avoid putting themselves in spots where one missed pass becomes a dangerous threat at the other end.
Match date/time: Saturday 8/22, 7:00pm Eastern
Venue: Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium (Washington, DC)
TV: CSN+ (English) Not sure where to find it? CSN has a channel finder. Also: MLS Direct Kick (English, requires subscription)
Online: MLS Live (English, blacked out in the DC region)
Our gamethread will be up an hour before kickoff.
Why is this up so early?: We're trying something new. Things will probably work out. Don't fear change.